1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Distinction Between Sense and Understanding

(Part 68)

(J) Intellection (cont.)

Distinction Between Sense and Understanding

In entering upon this inquiry we are really passing one of the hardest and fastest lines of the old psychology, -- that between sense and understanding. So long as it was the fashion to assume a multiplicity of faculties the need was less felt for a clear exposition of their connexion. A man had senses and intellect much as he had eyes and ears; the heterogeneity in the one case was no more puzzling than in the other. But for psychologists who do not cut the knot in this fashion it is confessedly a hard matter to explain the relation of the two. The contrast of receptivity and activity hardly avails, for all presentation involves activity and essentially the same activity, that of attention. Nor can well maintain that the presentations attended to differ in kind, albeit such a view has been held from Plato downwards. Nihil est in intellectu quod non fuerit prius in sensu: the blind and deaf are necessarily without some concepts that we possess. If pure being is pure nothing, pure thoughts is equally empty. Thought consists of a certain elaboration of sensory and motor presentations and has no content apart from these. We cannot even say that the forms of this elaboration are psychologically a priori; on the contrary, what is epistemologically the most fundamental is the last to be psychologically realized. This is not only true as a fact; it is also true of necessity, in so far as the formation of more concrete concepts is an essential preliminary to the formation of others more abstract, -- those most abstract, like the Kantian categories, &c., being this formative work is substantially voluntary, yet, if we enter upon it the form at each step is determined by the so-called matter, and not by us; in this respect "the spontaneity of thought" is not really freer than the receptivity of sense. [75-2] It is sometimes said that thought is synthetic, and this is true; but imagination is synthetic also; and the processes which yield the ideational train are the only processes at work in intellectual synthesis. Moreover, it would be arbitrary to say at what point the mere generic image ceases and the true concept begins, -- so continuous are the two. No wonder, therefore, that English psychology has been prone to regard thought as only a special kind of perception – perceiving the agreement or disagreement of ideas – and the ideas themselves as mainly the products of association. Yet this is much like confounding observation with experiment or invention, -- the act of a caveman in betaking himself to a drifting tree with that of Noah in building himself an ark. In reverie, and even in understanding the communications of others, we are comparatively passive spectators of ideational movements, non-voluntarily determined. But in thinking or "intellection," as it has been conveniently termed, there is always a search for something more or less vaguely conceived, for a clue which will be known when it occurs by seeming to satisfy certain conditions. Thinking may be broadly described as solving a problem, -- finding an AX that is B. In so doing we start from a comparatively fixed central ideas or intuition and work along the several diverging lines of ideas associated with it, -- hence far the aptest and in fact the oldest description of thought is that it is discursive. Emotional excitement – and at the outset the natural man does not think much in cold blood – quickens the flow of ideas: what seems relevant is at once contemplated more closely, while what seems irrelevant awakens little interest and receives little attention. At first the control acquired is but very imperfect; the actual course of thought of even a disciplined mind falls far short of the clearness, distinctness, and coherence of the logician’s ideal. Familiar associations hurry attention away from the proper topic, and thought becomes not only discursive but wandering: in place of concepts of fixed and crystalline completeness, such as logic describes, we may find a congeries of ideas but imperfectly compacted into one generic idea, subject to continual transformation and implicating much that is irrelevant and confusing.


[75-2] Locke, so often misrepresented, expressed this truth according to his lights in the following : -- "The earth will not appear painted with flowers nor the fields covered with verdure whenever we have a mind to it. . . Just thus it with our understanding: all that is voluntary in our knowledge is the employing or withholding any of our facilities form this or that sort of objects and a more or less accurate survey of them" (Essay, iv. 13.2).

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